“It is all very well to copy what one sees, but it is far better to draw what one now only sees in one’s memory. That is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory” – Edgar Degas
Historians always deal with a subject matter that is strange, or at least estranged from our current experience, but traditionally assume that the past can only be made susceptible to interpretation by rendering it familiar, thereby achieving a kind of timeless transparency. This is done through the simple method, often for the sake of the narrative, of assuming that historical events are rooted in an ambiguously defined “human nature” everywhere and always the same, and that we can find sufficient cause for any historical occurrence, action, or thought in this transcendent nature. Thus, the historian of this ilk must reject a priori any suggestion of supernatural causes in favor of natural interpretations, independent of what his informants, who being long dead are unable to clarify, suggest.
Seen through this lens, grasping history is an act of reconstruction, the assemblage of pottery shards into the totality of a Grecian urn to which an ode can be sung. The French romanticist historian Jules Michelet argued that reconstitution of the past was an arid endeavor, and that the true aim of history was the “resurrection” of the past, allowing us to listen to the voices of dead men as they themselves might speak and eschewing the unfounded assumption that they were simply intellectually inferior versions of modern man, and remind the present not just of the irreducible variety of human life, but to celebrate strangeness and unfamiliarity. Philosopher Michel Foucault best translated this approach as an effort to “defamiliarize” ourselves with man, society, and culture, to ask not what our ancestors meant, but how they experienced the world without addressing them as befuddled versions of ourselves.
When one plumbs the depths of that amorphous set of seemingly implausible facts that are collectively referred to as “strange history”, and examines the historiographic approach to them, one is quickly awash in a sea of naturalistic interpretation, a ceaseless commentary that parenthetically, yet mercilessly empties history of folklore, magic, religion, monsters, and anything that is not in accord with common sense modernism. Not to say, that history ignores these subjects, but rather rigorously wrings naturalistic explanations out of them. This is not an argument for the mystification of history, rather an assessment of the methodological implications of the underlying presentism (the anachronistic introduction of present ideas and perspectives into the interpretation of the past) that has dominated human historical thought since the heirs of Herodotus (who was perhaps the first and last historian to precede from the premise that acceptance of the supernatural was of historical importance) began to put pen to paper.
Historians are curators of probability. They interpret past events based on the probability that they occurred. The best a historian can achieve is to suggest what probably happened, and it’s probable and proximate causes. In order to effectively achieve this, the interpretation of the past must be divorced from the improbable, which by definition includes the supernatural, especially if any naturalistic cause palatable in the historian’s contemporary paradigm, no matter how convoluted, can be substituted.
In contrast, the anomalist and the strange historian at his best, rather than being an obscurantists or sensationalist, is attuned to examining the flotsam and jetsam of improbability that washes ashore after the ship of the past has sunk beneath the waves. In 1960, anomalists Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels optimistically and incorrectly thought that this approach to history was already in the offing, suggesting that the new generation of historians was “determined to sacrifice nothing for the sake of coherence. This attitude, moreover, reflects a quite recent tendency in history, and so does the desire for truth…the reader will have to conclude that the historian of today has abandoned the old idea that the truth would emerge if all the pieces in the puzzle were put together without leaving any gaps or adding anything. He no longer believes that the ideal of the work of history is like a beautiful mosaic, smooth and complete; rather he conceives of it as a kind of excavation site, with all its apparent chaos, where are to be found side by side with objects of doubtful value or mildly evocative relics, real works of art, genuine resurrection from the past”. While at the time hope may have been emerging in the form of a nascent post-modernism that was beginning to infect the humanities and social sciences, it merely supplanted purely naturalistic interpretations of history with a speculative cacophony of psychological, sociological, anthropological and linguistic prime movers.
History is memory, and both are individual and collective actions, as well as being normative (enforcing a standard of thought), but as Umberto Eco reminded us, “the function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick”. History must similarly choose what to retain and what to discard or we would have to admit how screwy we really are and how inadequately we understand our existence, and in indoctrinating us to its notion of the steady progression of time and civilization, lauding its ability to educate us about the future through the rational packaging of the past into discrete and utilitarian memories that can inform our decisions, it spawned the discipline of folklore, or perhaps more aptly named, “improbable history”. This relegation of the anomalistic to a ghetto of literature, fantasy, and primitivism renders it invisible, distorting the significance of the human experience of the unnatural or inexplicable, independent of whether it exists or not. As Schopenhauer said, “The fundament upon which all our knowledge and learning rests is the inexplicable”. And the inexplicable is a pain in the fundament.